There are lots of things River still doesn’t tell Simon. He wouldn’t understand the way she doubts the shapes of shadows or how she searches them for darker shapes they might contain. He sees her test the strength of things – the earth under her feet, the knife that rides in Zoe’s boot, Jayne’s toes – but she doesn’t explain, and he doesn’t ask.
He wouldn’t understand about the dreams, either.
This one’s in Earth That Was, on a street paved with stones. Men stand at the corners and mutter the way Badger mutters. She’s not afraid. Even in the dreams where she’s dying, she’s not afraid. That’s part of the dreaming, she thinks. Or maybe part of her.
But there’s nothing to be afraid of, not now/here. She’s just a small thin girl with a secret, but she isn’t good at keeping it; it swings with her arms and strides with her feet. They all know her secret, the girl with violence in her arm, and they keep it with her. No human will touch her here.
The beast stumbles from a side street. It is hairy like the miniature mammoths on Hades, and blood glistens dark in its teeth. It sees her. It turns back.
She follows. There’s a blade in her hand.
This is what she comes for. This is why she dreams.
“I’m going,” she says. The captain’s going to tell her he doesn’t need her, him and Jayne, they’ll be all right sure enough. Don’t need a strange little girl to help them scare away the bogies. “The mule’s motor has only forty-seven discrete parts. Easy to disengage.”
Mal says, “Now, I will not have my crew blackmailing me with my own mechanics!”
“Don’t need to,” she says. “She won’t cause a fuss. Just needs to see the sky.”
The words are right. He considers. Finally he nods. “You clear it with your brother first. Got no wish to listen to him squalling.”
“I’ll need weapons,” she says.
“Now wait a minute,” he says.
“What harm can she do with one axe?” River asks.
“Question is, what harm can’t she do,” he mutters, but she’s won. She’ll have her weapons.
There’s a monster she needs to meet.
She’s on Persephone long ago, when every planet was a border planet and a rich man was any and only one that owned a ship. There’s dust beneath her feet and her nose clogs with the dirt-green smell of the chemicals that make ecology from rock. She’s wearing flax linen and cowhide over that. And the man she’s fighting is a monster.
His teeth shine like a dog’s in the moonlight, his brow like an angry pig’s. Black leather falls from his shoulders and swirls at his feet.
He is quicker than she is. She holds the knife, but he is winning. When she strikes he falls back; when she turns he lands a blow. Sweat burns her eyes. She attacks again, but strikes only leather, and he twists away from her like a matador with his cape.
(She’s dreamt of that, too, of the woman in ruffles of gold and red who practiced on bulls before all the world and then slew the man-bull in secret.)
Then the monster’s foot slides behind hers and she is falling, fallen, prone. He drops beside her, his needless breath a chill in her ear, and lisps, “That was a sad, sad, show, love. Now try it again.”
“Ready to show your stuff?” the captain says, handing her a duffel. The leather straps are smooth under her fingers, the canvas worn soft to the touch. It’s heavy and clanking with tools.
“Mine now,” she says. “It was yours first, but it’s chosen a new partner.” By the bulge of it she knows there’s a pistol strapped into an inside pocket. It’s funny, she thinks, the different shapes trust comes in.
“That’s right,” he said. His voice was smiling. He offers his hand to lift her up into the mule, and she takes it. Knight and lady, she thinks, even if his armor is dusty. “Now you know you’re not to be cutting any throats today. This is strictly a legal operation.”
“Right is not as closely related to law as some people think,” she says, settling next to Jayne.
“Truer words,” the captain says. He climbs in on the other side of Jayne, behind the wheel. “All I’m saying is—”
“No crimson today,” she says. “Only clover. Quadrifoliate.”
“Exactly,” he says, more firmly than when he actually understands what she's talking about.
They rumble out across the desert through mutated sage. Half a mile to town, the captain says, but he also says they need to make an entrance here. Make an impression on the locals.
“Still don’t see what we’re doing,” Jayne says, “scaring out spirits.”
“Chance of aphysical supernatural activity less than seven percent,” River says. She listened to the captain making this agreement; physicality is almost certain. Teeth also a high probability. She’s glad the captain packed more in her duffel than just a gun.
“I’m not saying they’re real,” Jayne says, as if she’s accused him of something. “Anyway, you think a few ghosties’d make me jumpy?” He slaps a hand to his chest and lifts his chin. Such a big dominance ritual to impress one small girl.
“Vera can’t hurt ghosties,” River says, and turns away as he begins to sputter.
She’s on Earth That Was again, in a strange rich house. She’s been dead. Her hands are bleeding and her joints are stiff, like they’ve never moved before. A man is yelling for the dawn, and she ought to tell him that the sun never rises any faster that way, but she doesn’t.
She takes each stair carefully. Halfway down she sees the monster. For a minute he’s talking still – he’s like Wash, her River-self thinks, because of how rarely he’s silent – and then he finally sees her.
He’s such a fragile monster. Even the sight of things makes him cry, and soon he’s going to cry again.
But first he takes her hands and promises her, with his eyes instead of his weightless words, that he’ll help her remember how not to be dead.
The captain lands at a mine shaft, men and some women all crowding elbows in a circle around the entrance. River tries to compose an equation describing the tension between curiosity and fear. Some third quantity is needed; proximity to danger, maybe.
But the captain’s getting out and Jayne behind him; no more time for psychosocial mathematics. Not now. River pulls the axe free from the duffel and takes a knife in her other hand - Jayne has enough bullets for them all – and climbs out, too.
The captain dickers over the price of securing a mine from ‘spooks.’
It’s very long, she thinks, and black enough to hide the whole universe and all the monsters in it, more than even she’s dreamed of. “It’s a rabbit hole without any Alice,” she says. “Only mushrooms and madness.”
“You just stop that talk,” Jayne says, pulling Vera tighter against his chest. “Ain’t nothing but some bandits in a hidey-hole.”
In a few moments the captain is ready. He draws a pistol and a flashlight. He nods to River and Jayne, and as he approaches the entrance, they follow.
In the full black, the captain shines his light down the wall until he finds a switch. When he flips it, feeble lights like Christmas candles mark the way. “If I didn’t know better than to say such things,” he says, “I’d have said that was easy.”
They walk some more. Jayne mutters like his voice will drive the ghosties away.
But it’s not a ghost. She sees it hanging from the ceiling. It’s like a lizard, but as big as her and with skin like mineshaft rock. She sees it by the shadows it doesn’t cast, but she can’t kill it yet. It might fall on Jayne or the captain, and its claws are blades of stone. It follows them, and River waits.
They come to a cross-passage sliding up towards the surface, the other tine of their drafty fork. “There’s folks up at the top ready to catch anything that comes,” the captain says.
“I’ll stay here,” River says. “Keep the monsters from hopping chairs to the music.”
The captain wants to argue, but it’s a good reason; easy for something to hide in one tunnel, wait until they pass, and go up the other.
It just isn’t her reason.
“Flashlight in my bag,” say River. “For spirits.”
“You know if I don’t bring you back safe, your brother’ll murder me in righteous anger.”
River smiles. “I’ll save you, Captain.”
He nods; his decision is made. “See that you do.”
She is a small little girl, and this beast doesn’t know her secret yet. She is easy, tasty, defenseless Prey. It still hangs silent above her head. She hefts her axe. Reavers died on her blades like ants crushed under boots; she is not afraid of any monster.
Except, just as she readies to attack, another knocks her over from behind and a third creeps up from the floor.
These are stronger than Reavers and faster, and they have claws and teeth Reavers only dream of, if Reavers dream. She slices with her blades and kicks with her feet, but the monsters slice back. Things are becoming problematic.
And then a roar echoes down the passageway.
She knew he would come.
Sometimes the dream hasn’t happened yet. This one hadn’t when she dreamed it.
She’s underground, rounded walls of stone closing in, but the courageous lights keep them at bay. Blood black as old engine oil drips from her axe and pools below, just missing the scaly, stony corpse at her feet. There’s another down the passageway, and kneeling by it is the man/monster she knows. His hair and leather are brown now, but she knows it’s him.
He knows her, too. He saw what she did. He knows what else she can do, although he doesn’t know her name.
But she knows his.
He looks up with eyes like a weasel trapped in its den. Slowly he rises to his feet. He considers her, his gaze flicking to the beast and back again, and in the muscles of his face she watches him reach a conclusion. “Haven’t gone by that name in more years than I usually admit to having,” he says.
“I dream about you,” she says.
“Yeah?” He nods very carefully, as though she were an animal ready to spook. As though she were the one who needs the soft gentle voice and the careful gentle touches. “Happens that way sometimes.” His lifts his hand towards her and then drops it. “Never met one that knew my name before.”
She doesn’t roll her eyes.
She doesn’t say: One of the girls I am yelled at your wet towels and kissed you in the shower. She gave you birthday parties you didn’t want, and you forgave her because afterwards she touched you the way Kaylee touches Simon. One of the girls I am loved you like Zoe loved Wash. Of course I know your name.
She says, “You know what I am.”
He nods, slow, his head heavy on his neck with the weight of all those thoughts, all those years. “I suppose I do.”
“You helped the others become themselves. You taught the fighting hawks how to fly.”
“Haven’t done for a long time now,” he says. “I thought you’d all gone.” His hand lifts again, uncertain sparrow trembling in flight. This time it alights on her shoulder. His fingers peck at strands of her hair. “I thought there was only me.”
He turns and thumbs behind him. “It’s why I was here, wrestling with the nasty. Nobody else to come, I thought.”
“Spike?” She calls him by name again because when someone is hungry you feed them. “Will you teach me? I need someone to show me what I’m supposed to be.”
He swallows. Tears are following paths of least resistance down his face. “I could do that.”
This is another thing Simon won't understand. But Simon doesn’t have to understand everything about her. Not anymore.
River takes Spike’s hand.